Obama signs bill speeding up air tanker deals to fight forest fires

The Associated Press
President Barack Obama stands in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, June 13, 2012, after signing the Contract Awards for Large Air Tanker. The bill will support the ability to fight wildfires by enabling the Forest Service to accelerate the contracting of the next generation of air tankers for wildfire suppression. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

DENVER (AP) – A bill signed Wednesday by President Barack Obama allows the U.S. Forest Service to begin contracting faster air tankers that carry more retardant used to fight wildfires.

The measure, passed by Congress last week, will help speed the process for contracting the next generation of air tankers. It also will allow the Forest Service to buy as many as seven large air tankers outright.

Hours after the bill signing, the Forest Service announced three of the new planes will be available within 60 days.

The planes that will be available are BAe-146s, which are turbine powered and capable of flying at least 345 mph with a load of 2,400 gallons of fire retardant. By comparison, the piston-powered P2Vs currently used as air tankers were developed during World War II as submarine hunters and carry about 2,100 gallons of fire retardant at a speed of about 212 mph.

Fires burning this week in New Mexico and Colorado have underscored the need to replenish the nation’s aging firefighting fleet.

This week, the Forest Service announced it was increasing the existing fleet to 17 planes.

The White House says there are about 5,000 firefighters available to fight wildfires. About 1,000 are assigned to the Colorado fire, along with five tankers and other smaller aircraft.

Meanwhile, a preliminary report found that a P2V-7 that crashed June 3 while fighting a wildfire in southern Utah veered off its flight path while following a lead plane moments before crashing into mountainous terrain. Both pilots in the tanker died; they were from Boise, Idaho. The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday it is still investigating.

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